8 Things to Know When Entering the Car Wash Industry

things to know when starting car wash business

If you’re brand new to the car wash industry, you’re in for a fun ride…and a bit of a learning curve. Like all industries, car washing has its own challenges and idiosyncrasies.

Like you, I was once a newcomer. When I was getting started, I didn’t understand the complexity of a tunnel. Now after more than 16 years in the industry, I feel like a chemical and mechanical engineer with a masters in customer service!

There are many facets to our business, and you need to become versed in all of them to maximize your success. To make it a little easier, I’m sharing with you some of what I’ve learned along the way.

1. Employees are your most valuable asset

It’s cliché, but true. With the possible exception of your location, people are your main differentiating factor. You should spend as much time building an effective team as you do designing your tunnel.

In the beginning, I wish someone would have explained the difference between building a culture vs. training employees to complete tasks. Empowering employees with skills to handle unexpected scenarios is a better way to spend your time.

Think of it as creating a player/coach environment. Disney refers to its employees as Cast Members. At Starbucks, they’re Partners. One wash I worked at referred to them as Car Care Advisors. The goal is to create an environment where employees feel vital to the organization’s success and empowered to create and meet lofty career goals.

Training is key. We had different levels of training for our Car Care Advisors, and each level unlocked different positions and perks. This inspired employees to learn everything they could about the car wash industry. That passion bled into customer service, making the entire organization more successful.

You’ll find that the best way to grow your business is to groom employees who came from that process into managers. If you constantly have to look outside the industry for leadership, you’ll have to spend more time and money on training. That’s why competitive wages, benefits and performance-based bonuses are critical so you can retain these key team members.

2. Build with the future in mind

You may not have the resources to build the car wash of your dreams, but you can save money in the future by putting the pieces in place now.

Buy a location that’s big enough for that dream wash. Run extra conduit for the pay station you hope to add. Add the electric for the top brush you are planning. Anything you can do now to make those improvements more feasible later will save you time and money.

Also, make sure the technology you invest in can grow with you. Can it scale to manage multiple locations? Will the vendor have the bandwidth to support you as you grow? The right choice for now may not be the right choice for the future.build car wash with future in mind

3. Your tunnel requires constant attention

To ensure the highest wash quality, regularly review your tunnel operations for peak performance. You should run “shadow washes” while walking through the tunnel at opening, close and multiple times throughout the day looking for:

  • Equipment malfunctions
  • Retract issues
  • Loose equipment
  • Cracked welds
  • Hydraulic / air leaks

Staying on top of issues can reduce downtime and ensure customer satisfaction. Remember, for every customer who complains, there are potentially several others who kept quiet but won’t return to your wash.

4. Build with climate in mind

While many pieces of equipment are standard for most washes, you’ll find that you’ll need some specific gear to deal with climate differences and other regional factors.

An obvious example is the high-pressure underbody treatments. This is a must-have in the Midwest, but not so much in Arizona. In Grand Junction, CO, oil field trucks track a large amount of mud through the area, so a wash I ran there required a large custom mud blaster system. We also had to upsize the reclamation tanks to handle the increased sand/mud.

Installing these upgrades later could be costly, so upfront research is important. Find out what the biggest challenges are for getting cars clean in the region in which you’re building and determine which equipment best handles them. A great way to find out is to visit other washes in similar climates.

5. Don’t automatically disregard full-service

While full-service washes aren’t as popular these days, there is a market for them. Clearly, full-service washes can be more expensive and time-consuming to run, but they can still be just as profitable.

Consider your location and market. Does your location lend itself well to processing a lot of vehicles? If not, full-service may be a better option. What are the demographics of your location? If it’s a wealthier area with a number of high-end vehicles, a full-service model could do well.

Determine which wash will likely work best and maximize that design.

6. It never hurts to ask

When you run into roadblocks getting started, don’t give up. This goes double for working with municipalities. For instance, if your property isn’t zoned correctly for a car wash, it may seem like a game ender, but you can likely apply for a variance. If you have a legitimate argument, you can probably get the variance passed. Another common issue operators run into is limitations on the size and positioning of signs. There are ways to get around that, as well, such as supplementing your main sign with other signage.

Do your homework, and look for creative solutions.

7. Don’t make marketing an afterthought

market your car wash business

Don’t wait until your volume fails to meet expectations. Have your marketing strategy ready right out of the gate.

There’s no shortage of ways to promote your new business: Door hangers, digital ads, partnerships with your chamber of commerce, social media posts, etc. One of the best tactics is opening with free washes. How long you offer free washes and the number you give away is up to you, but most washes that achieve early success give away some washes initially. The beauty of this strategy is that it doesn’t require a lot of money to promote; Word-of-mouth does most of the work for you.

Another thing you’ll want to consider is what types of coupons and promotions you’ll want to offer. You’ll want to get those built within your point-of-sale system before you open.

Opening a wash is not a build-it-and-they-will-come situation. It’s easier to turn off marketing efforts if you don’t need them than to scramble to build them when you’re already up and running.

8. The industry is supportive.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for advice and knowledge. Car wash operators have soap in their veins. They want to help newcomers because they love to see the industry grow. They’re open to talking about their mistakes so you don’t have to make those same mistakes.

Regional car wash associations, as well as the International Carwash Association, are a great way to meet other car washers. Attend their trade shows and other events. Visiting other car washes is another great way to learn and get to know other operators.

Go Forth and Wash Cars

This by no means covers all the nuances of the car wash industry, but hopefully these tips will help make the road to car washing success a little smoother.

Brett Meinberg

With more than 15 years of experience in running and supporting car wash businesses, Brett has a deep understanding of car wash operations. His experience spans from launching new car wash sites to preparing a car wash business for sale and everything in between. Using his experience as a DRB customer, he now serves as a voice of the customer. He bridges the gap between customers and DRB Systems’ product development team to bring products to market that will best help car wash businesses grow. Connect with Brett on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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